KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Bottom-up coordination

with 4 comments

(Big disclaimer: these are my own ramblings and do not in any way reflect official UN thinking  – and I even reserve the right to change my own mind about this)

I wrote in a previous post about the need to use the heart, not just the mind when trying to improve the coordination of the UN’s work (or for any co-ordination effort).

A related issue is whether coordination is best achieved by imposing it top-down, or whether you foster the emergence of coordination from the bottom up (or perhaps more correctly what is the right balance  of the two approaches).

A traditional view of coordination has been to establish common norms and standards and guidelines at a global level through a process of negotiation between agencies in order to accommodate their different mandates, experiences and perspectives.

This has the benefit of establishing common global standards that are mandated and clearly recognized and understood as “the way to do things” across the system. This type of coordination has much more of a “force of law” than coordination that emerges locally.

But this type of coordination also suffers from some drawbacks. In particular:

  • It can be time consuming and difficult to get agreement of common rules and procedures at a global or HQ level, and even when agreement is reached it is often a compromise and sometimes risks to be an agreement on the “lowest common denominator” rather than the best ideas and practices each has to bring.
  • Rules and procedures developed centrally don’t necessarily work equally well in the wide variety of different circumstances in which we work with different country contexts in terms of size, level of development, culture, capacity and political and security risks (as well as different personalities on the ground).
  • Procedures of this type are often followed in letter, but not in spirit i.e. the rules are followed, but without the accompanying intend behind them to make the work more coordinated in practice.

At a UNDG knowledge fair back in 2010 we looked at good country examples of multi-agency projects working on policy change. One of the interesting aspects of this was looking at what the factors were that facilitated good inter-agency co-operation and a striking observation was that a lot of the examples of successful inter-agency coordination  were not as a result of top down imposed coordination where people were told to work together, but more often from a group of people together identifying a common interest and the potential to achieve more by pooling or coordinating their efforts.

Similarly the UN’s Delivering as One initiative is essentially a bottom up one where countries themselves have expressed an interest in greater integration and coherence of the UN’s operation at country level. Here countries were in the driving seat in determining how and where to integrate more within a broad framework of options rather than in a one size fits all mode.

Bottom-up coordination, based on a real desire to be better coordinated from those people who are being coordinated (or perhaps better acting to coordinate themselves) and which responds to real needs, and takes advantage of opportunities is an undervalued and potentially very impactful and sustainable way of getting better results.

But for this to happen there also needs to be a supportive environment that allows people to seize opportunities to work together, and develop common, but locally appropriate solutions. A few of the factors important in creating this type of environment include:

  • Shared purpose. There has to be some sense of common interests or goals if only articulated at a high level which are shared between the coordinating organizations (even if they still have their own more specific mandates and goals under them).
  • Trust. It’s important for the people who are supposed to work together to get to know each other  and effectively to like each other so that they are willing to trust each other to deliver on their part of the work. To foster this its important to get people together regularly, not only for formal theme meetings, but also for informal more social meetings so they can understand each other better. Where possible putting people in physical proximity can help improve this. Putting people in the same building, or even better for cross agency teams to sit on the same floor can greatly improve trust building and information sharing.
  • Information sharing. To coordinate effectively you need to have good mechanisms for sharing information. Ideally these are comprehensive, but not overwhelming in terms of either the burden of sharing your information or the volume of information received. Here development of light systems that share the most important information and that are equitable in terms of sharing the same information with everyone. This is important both to spot opportunities for pooling efforts,as well as to make sure these efforts are managed effectively. Greater transparency and public disclosure of aid information not just within teams but with governments, donors  and the public will greatly facilitate this.
  • Flexibility and empowerment from HQ down. One challenge to local initiatives in coordination is whether their respective HQs allow them to happen or whether rote application of global policies and rules that are agency specific means that staff locally cannot seize opportunities to work better together. For local initiative to work then local teams would need to be empowered to make their own decisions on when and how to collaborate. In some instances this would lead to greater integration, and in some cases to less, depending on whether there is a need and whether greater collaboration is likely to yield results. Here the allowable parameters for working together would n3eed to be established and performance monitored, but the exact form of cooperation would be largely determined locally.
  • Leadership. Greater collaboration is more likely to work when it is encouraged by management globally, but perhaps even more importantly locally, and that efforts to work together are encouraged and supported and expected.
  • External pressure. It helps if government counterparts and other partners, as well as donors put a little external pressure on people to coordinate better. Another external pressure is that of resources – on the one hand donor funding (or other internal funding mechanisms) can be used to help stimulate greater collaboration. On the other hand in the current climate of shrinking budgets the limited resources of individual actors itself is a good incentive to pool resources and coordinate different inputs to achieve more with less, so long as the external incentives are not pushing people to compete.
  • Learning and knowledge sharing. If the way work is coordinated varies from situation to situation based on context, then how do we know  what works? A necessary accompaniment to greater flexibility is the need to reflect on and share experience of what works and what doesn’t and for different countries to share their experiences and to support one another so that each team doesn’t need to start from scratch but can benefit from the the experience of others. This would also mean that any approach taken is seen and potentially scrutinized externally so that successful approaches will be copied and adapted by others while unsuccessful ones will be abandoned  in favour of better approaches being used by others.
  • Incentives. People respond to incentives, especially around what they are told is important and what will affect their reputation and career..  Staff in agencies are primarily responsible to those agencies which are primarily responsible to their governing boards. The trick is to find ways for their incentives to also be geared towards finding common or coordinated solutions. this might be by including feedback mechanisms on their work from beneficiaries (who benefit from better coordinated work), from collaborating partners, or even within their agencies through their staff reporting systems and their reporting relationships with their own boards.

I’m not meaning to say that top-down coordination and common rules don’t have their place. They are extremely important to establish common frame of reference and legitimacy for coordination and to ensure certain minimum standards are met and will continue to be a key driver of improved coordination, but they should also be complemented by greater support and encouragement for locally developed forms of coordination that emerge from a need and desire to work together, and which are developed in a flexible way to respond to the situation on the ground. This way work can be coordinated in a way that is most likely to yield results for those who are in the front lines working in countries with governments and other local partners.


Written by Ian Thorpe

April 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Great ideas, Ian! And of course they are not attached just to the UN work…

    Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella

    April 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  2. Agree that coordination in the field has its own specific purposes and could be better aligned. I would emphasize your point on informal learning and knowledge sharing components that are ultimately built on trust. For example, we used to have informal winter or summer retreats with the coordination working group, going out of the city and brainstorming different plans together. After 1 year, we have established the level of trust that helped us to lead our joint work efficiently. Our objectives and plans easily achieved consensus and were implemented jointly. At the same time, there is a room for improvement, that is to increase awareness and culture of knowledge sharing at real-time and having a pool of base for best-practices.


    April 20, 2012 at 8:25 pm

  3. Ian, Montenegro is one of the self starters/DaO countries. I’ve been coordinating the work of 1 of 3 programs within the Integrated UN programs – in addition to all the factors you listed, ill add one more. Get the government in a driving seat! This at the beginning implies that all the work is done by us- coordination, logistics, planning- but hand over the credit to these guys. As they build political capital nationally on driving the process that is still relatively novel globally, as they keep getting recognition- they actually start getting more into the substance of working with several agencies on one issue (where we before, UNDP was the address for all questions) and they start moving the agenda themselves. Really really neat to see in practice!
    great post, as always!


    April 21, 2012 at 3:39 am

  4. […] Go here to read the rest: Bottom-up coordination […]

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